This weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, filmmakers Lara Zizic and David Turner debuted their film “Misison Congo,” an indictment of American televangelist and Christian Coalition mastermind Pat Robertson. Robertson’s Operation Blessing organization, which has only seen TIFF’s and the production company’s promotional copy for the film, has claimed that the promotional materials are “false and defamatory” and that they are considering legal action. (See the Virginia Pilot story here.)
That’s not a big surprise. The film is based on a series of reports that ran in the Virginia Pilot about a Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs report that concluded that pleas for money being raised for Robertson’s Operation Blessing was deceptive. Robertson launched a PR defensive, writing an op-ed for the Virginia Pilot (they ran it) and asking them to retract the story (they didn’t).
After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Virginia Beach-based Pat Robertson asked his “700 Club” viewers to help him send a medical convoy to a town in what was then Zaire (and is now Congo). As donations of $100 and $250 rolled in from all over the country, it’s unclear if he sent much more than boxes and boxes of Tylenol to the cholera-stricken region. It’s fairly well proven in the film that he didn’t send many medical professionals (not the biggest and first group of doctors, like he claims to his viewers).
What he doesn’t tell his viewers is that most of what he was doing in Zaire was working with local government officials (one of whom was a known architect of the Rwandan genocides and eventually was found guilty of war crimes at the Hague) to claim diamond mining sites on the other side of the country from the camp.
The film’s indictment of Robertson is far-reaching. Leaders of other Christian organizations explain how televangelists like Robertson prey on specifically older Americans and exploit viewers who feel they’re not doing enough godly work in their own lives to fund their giant money-rich operations.
It’s unclear exactly how the Congo programs of Operation Blessing fell apart, but the film also points to a post on the Operation Blessing website. It claims that a school they built in a town where Operation Blessing led a failed farming project was still in operation. The village was left without industry and the school, according to the filmmakers’ footage, looks abandoned.
The biggest crime of all for “Mission Congo” is Robertson’s mastery of spin. His diamond operation was obscured. His contribution to the Medicins sans Frontieres presence was aggrandized. His farming failure was presented as a success.
“Mission Congo” indicts the preacher, whose latest headline-grabbing comments include accusing gay men in San Francisco of wearing special rings that infect others with HIV, for being a bad shepherd. To do that, they’re taking a controversy that stayed local to Virginia and taking it all over.
Robertson’s further response to the film will undoubtedly depend on just how far the filmmakers can take their story.